The Deer: Lifeblood of the Barrens

FARLEY MOWAT made his first trip to the Barren Lands in 1935 when, as a boy of fifteen, he saw the great herds oj reindeer, “a half-mile wide river of caribou flowing unhurriedly north.”It was a sight he never forgot. On his discharge from the Canadian Army after six years in the Infantry, he decided to return to the unmapped sanctuary of the Barrens and study the migration of the deer. lie flew to Lake Nueltin with enough supplies for a stay of several months, and teamed up with Franz, a young Cree-German trader, who took him to the Ihalmiut, a vanishing clan of primitive Eskimos. This is the second of three articles drawn from Mr. Mount’s forthcoming book, People of the Deer (Atlantic-Little, Brown).



THE day the deer came Franz took me on his sled and we drove warily along the rotten shore ice of the bay to the Ghost Hills. The June heat was intense; at noon the thermometer had reached 100, and we wore only thin trousers and cotton shirts. An hour’s travel took us to the north shore of the bay, and here we tied the dogs and climbed a long gentle ridge that faced south.

Below us lay Windy Bay, and beyond it the shattered slopes of the Ghost Hills. The hills were duncolored heights sheathed in rock and long-dead lichens, with startlingly black patches of dwarf spruce spotted along their lower slopes. To the north, the summer plains sank into white, snowfilled hollows, hiding the muskegs and ponds; then lifted to reveal a hueless and leaden waste that stretched to the horizon.

From our vantage point all of this achromatic, world lay somberly below us as we waited for the deer. We had not long to wait. Franz caught unarm and pointed to the convoluted slopes of the distant southern hills, and I could just discern a line of motion. It seemed to me that the slopes were sliding gently downward to the bay, as if the innumerable boulders that protruded from the hills had suddenly been set adrift to roll, in slow motion, down upon the ice. I watched intently, not certain whether the sun’s glare had begun to affect my eyes so that they played tricks on me. Then the slow avalanches reached the far shore and debouched over the bay. I tried to count the little dots. Ten, fifty, a hundred, three hundred—and I gave up. In broken twisted lines, in bunched and beaded ropes, the deer streamed out onto the ice until they were moving north across a front of several miles.

From that distance they barely seemed to move, and yet in a few minutes they had reached the center of the bay and had begun to take on shape. I lifted my binoculars to my eyes. The long skeins dissolved at once into endless rows of deer, each following upon the footsteps of the animals ahead. Here and there along the lines a yearling kept its place beside a mother who was swollen with the new fawn she carried. There were no bucks. All these animals were does, all pregnant, all driving inexorably towards the north and the flat plains where they would soon give birth.

The leaders reached our shore and began the ascent, but across the bay the avalanche continued and grew heavier. The surface of the bay, for 6 miles east and west, had become one undulating mass of animals, and still they came.

Without hurry, without pause, driven by instinct, they filed down to the ice and, following the tracks of those who had crossed first, made for our shore. Highways began to grow. The black ice was pounded and shattered until it again became white with broken crystals. The broad roads stretched across the bay, multiplied, grew into one another until at length they disappeared and the whole sweep of ice was one great road.

The herds were swelling past our lookout now. Ten paces from us, five, then we were forced to stand and wave our arms to avoid being trampled on. The does gazed briefly and incuriously at us, swung a few feet away and passed on to the north without altering their gait.

Hours passed like minutes. The flow continued at an unbroken level until the sun stood poised on the horizon’s rim. And I became slowly conscious of a great apathy. Life, my life and that of Franz, of all living things I knew, seemed to have become meaningless. For here was life on such a scale that it was beyond all comprehension. It numbed my mind and left me feeling as if the inanimate world had been saturated with a reckless prodigality in that sacred and precious thing called life.


SINCE the time of the first arctic explorations, la Foule, the Throng, has baffled men. Unlike the immense herds of the prairie buffalo whose habits were open to the eyes of human intruders, the caribou have always remained wrapped in an aura of mystery that has never quite been penetrated. It was known that at certain times of the year, and in certain places, the deer would suddenly appear in herds which blanketed the land. Then, in a few days, they would be gone again. Where had they gone? Well, to the north, the south, or to the east and west, but to what destinations and for what reasons, no one knew.

But as time passed a rough pattern began to emerge from all the conflicting tales told about the deer, and it became known that most of the great herds summered on the plains of the open Barrens and, for the most part, wintered southward inside the protecting timber of the high arctic forests. These two movements were known, but after I had been a year in the Barrens, yet another movement became obvious to me — a migration that I shall discuss in detail later on.

The does, moving up from the forests to cross the mouth of Windy Bay in the first weeks of spring, soon began to disappear and there came a week when only little bands of stragglers, the sterile does, were seen. These did not hurry, for they were not driven by the compulsion of their swollen bellies. Old does, and those that had not been bred, passed gently by, but on their heels there came a new upsurge. The bucks arrived. For a few days the hard-packed crossing places were again so thickly carpeted by the brown backs of animals that the ice could not be seen. Then suddenly the bucks too had passed our camp, following the trails of their does, who were even then giving birth on the flatlands 500 miles to the north of us. The bucks passed, and that was the end of the spring migration, though stragglers continued to come our way for many weeks.

The beasts that passed under my eyes that spring were hardly things of beauty. Their rough coats were molting, and in places the passage through the thick forests had rubbed the winter hair away from great patches of black skin. The distended bellies of the does and the ugly bovine heads of all the animals, quite without antlers in the spring, bore no resemblance to the graceful shapes that our minds conjure up at the word “deer.” And yet their long and knobby legs, with huge splayed feet, carried them over the rough land with a deceptive speed and sureness.

Nor did their manners make them more attractive. Does, fawns, and bucks, without exception, enlivened the long day’s trek with a ceaseless succession of belly noises that made each herd seem like one noisy knot of rampant indigestion. The belly rumblings formed an undertone to the castanetlike clatter of their feet, for the “ankles” of caribou are fitted with a loose cartilage that, when they move, emits a clicking noise not unlike the muted sound of rocks being tapped against each other under water.

By the end of June the last stragglers, the wounded and the sick, had passed by Windy Bay, leaving the land about our camp to countless flocks of ducks, gulls, and sandpipers who kept up a constant cry and movement over the little ponds and the softening muskeg bogs. The snow was gone by then, yet the passage of the deer was still remembered, for the low bogs had been so cut and torn by the pounding hoofs that areas of moss, covering acres in extent, had been churned to chocolate-colored puddings of ancient peat, torn from its frozen sleep and left to melt under the heat of a forgotten sun. The heavy stench of barnyards hung over these spots for many weeks.

Even the surfaces of the great ridges, paved with frost-shattered rocks, clearly showed the eternal passage of the deer. Trails crossed and intersected everywhere, so that in all the country it was difficult to find a single square yard of land which did not bear the deep impress of a long-used trail. Even on solid rock the trails were clearly marked and some had been worn into the gray gneiss for a foot in depth.

But while the land at Windy Bay was given over to birds, the anxious does had borne their fawns on the chosen ground of the high flat plains that lie to the south of Baker Lake and Thelon River. The fawns were with the herds, grunting and coughing about their restless mothers. These precocious children can outrun a man within hours of their birth and can give even the great arctic wolf a difficult, pursuit. It is well for them that they are so forward, for their dull-eyed mothers are singularly lacking in maternal instincts and it sometimes happens that the does desert their young in the face of danger. So it is not uncommon to meet young fawns roaming alone in the wide spaces of the plains. These lost youngsters will attach themselves to men and follow them for hours, for, like all caribou, the fawns are cursed with a great curiosity about things better left alone.

When the fawning is done with, the great herds split into little groups which are forever on the move. In eddies and milling crowds they circle aimlessly, covering hundreds of miles of tundra every few days. The deer have no home. Winter and summer they must always be on the move, for when such numbers gather at any given spot, the lichens and dwarf willow leaves that form their chief foods are speedily exhausted, and if the deer remain they starve.

Throughout the hot July days the northern plains are filled with restless little groups of deer which shift about and pass like tumbleweed. But in late July a new compulsion seems to seize them, and this is the movement I referred to earlier as one that still remains quite unexplained. A few of the tiny groups suddenly drift towards the south. They are like the beginnings of a growing avalanche, for they pick up and carry with them all the herds they meet, and the momentum of the march increases rapidly from day to day. By early August this movement is a flood that rushes southward at increasing speed until, reaching the forest edge, the wave of deer is halted and flung back in disorder and confusion. The vast summer herds break up, and once again they eddy slowly about with complete aimlessness. Behind the wave of does, and sometimes mingling with them, the bucks, now carrying incredible spreads of velvet-covered antlers, follow along the trail of the stampede. Then, slowly, a recoil begins, and once again the deer drift to the north.

No man can tell the full reason behind this summer flight, for winter is still far away, and before it comes, all the deer will have moved north again nearly to the limits reached in spring. Perhaps they make this summer migration because of the flies. Mosquitoes and black flies abound so richly in the Barrens that for weeks on end a wise man does not stir from his dark cabin by day unless driven by urgent need. Summer travel is a constant flight, an endeavor to escape the pursuing haze of winged tormentors. I have seen men remove their shirts after a day in the summer Barrens, and those shirts had to be peeled away from the body, for they were glued to the flesh with the blood of countless bites.

If it is difficult for men to escape from the bloodsucking flies, then it is impossible for the deer to escape. At the height of the fly season the deer become emaciated shadows of themselves who hardly dare take time to eat and rest. They flee along the highest and most wind-swept ridges in a futile effort to escape a plague that has been known to destroy them from sheer loss of blood.

Yet the bloodsucking and the flesh-eating flies are not the most dreaded of the hosts. There are two other flies, both large, gaudy things which look like bumblebees. The arrival of a single one of these flamboyant raiders can inspire terror in a herd of deer that neither man nor wolves can equal. Once, while I was watching a small herd of bucks quietly feeding along a steep riverbank, I saw the animals suddenly go mad. The herd disintegrated and its members fled wildly in all directions, with tossing heads and with high reckless leaps that sometimes plunged them sickeningly on the sharp, shattered rocks. One buck turned to the river, and without a moment’s hesitation flung himself over the steep bank and crashed into the shallow waters below, to lie dying with a broken neck.

I paddled over to the still-quivering corpse, and there met the murderer: a winged, yellow horror perched on the dead deer, with its ovipositor throbbing and swelling as it sought a place to lay its microscopic eggs. These eggs hatch into minute larvae which burrow through the hide, enter the blood stream, and in time emerge from the flesh to lie in little pockets just underneath the skin on the back of the deer. By the next spring these pockets have reached full size, and each contains an aqueous grub as big as the end joint of a man’s finger. I have counted 200 of these white and repulsive parasites under the back hide of a single deer. In June the obese larvae burrow out through the skin, riddling it as if by machine-gun fire, and drop off to pupate on the ground.

The second of the two devil flies is of an even more evil nature, for itls larvae live not under the skin but in a tight and squirming mass, the size of a small grapefruit, which clogs the cavities of the deer’s nose and throat until it seems impossible that the victim can escape death by asphyxiation. I once took 130 of these giant maggots, each an inch long, from the throat and nostrils of a single doe.

Now perhaps — though I cannot prove the supposition— it is the threat of these many varieties of winged furies which drives the deer so far north in the early spring; for the farther north, the later is the coming of fly season. Then — again perhaps — as the flies die off from north to south with the progress of summer, the deer may follow that line of recession in search of undepleted pastures. I do not know if this is true, but I do know that the summer arrival of the deer in the central Barrens during my stay in the land coincided exactly with the final abrupt disappearance of the flies at that point.


FEW Northerners have any idea of the menageries of other unpleasant beasts that exisi under the skin of the deer. Parasites are so numerous, 1 conclude from my own studies, that there comes a time in the life of every deer, if it survives the other perils, when it is so overloaded with parasites that it simply dies of outright starvation though it spends all day eating. For the record, and for the enlightenment of any reader who may someday be offered a prime roast of caribou, here is a list of the actual parasites I took from one old buck.

In the body muscles there was a concentration of tapeworm cysts that averaged 2 per cubic inch of meat. No part of the muscle tissues was free of these abhorrent things; and in addition to them, there was a liberal sprinkling of the cysts of nematode worms. The lungs also were very active even after death. I counted and removed 17 nematode worms, most of them over six inches in length. In the liver there were tapeworm cysts of two species, some of them the size of a tennis ball. The intestines yielded one adult tapeworm of great length and antiquity, and even in the heart muscles I found 6 tapeworm cysts. Of minor parasites, there were 190 warble-fly larvae under the hide and about 75 bott-fly larvae cozily ensconced within the throat and nasal passages.

Now this particular deer was no exception. It was simply old and therefore very heavily parasitized. But all deer which I have examined, except fawns and some yearlings, have yielded a corresponding count of parasites in degrees of intensity varying with the beast’s age.

The interesting point here is that all the nematodes and tapeworms have at least two-stage life cycles. That is, they need another host, apart from the deer, to complete their lives. Encysted parasites reach maturity only when the flesh they are lurking in is eaten by another animal. That animal is often man.

I do not know what sort of internal shape the native eaters of deer — or I myself—may be in. Nor do I want to know. I can only comfort myself with the reflection that if the parasites to be picked up from eating deer meat were pathogenic, then there would be no Eskimos at all. It is thin comfort when I recall the raw meat dinners I have eaten in the Barrens.

About the end of August a new mood descends upon the deer. Slowly, and in small groups, they begin moving north again, for the time of rut. is drawing near and a protracted atmosphere of tension grips the already restless beasts.

At this time the deer are fat. Freed of flies, they have time to graze on the thick lichens and on the leaves of the tiny bushes that carpet the dry lands. In late summer the bucks accumulate a layer of fat that may be three inches thick along their backs, for they will have no time to eat during the rut. Now the gleaming summer coats of the animals are a rich brown. The massive antlers of the bucks arch to the skies.

Even the does have recovered from the ordeal of bearing and nursing the young. They are sleek again and, if not eager, at least passively ready for the October days when the rut takes place. The does also are carrying antlers, and though these are only little spikes compared with those of the bucks, they are interesting because the doe caribou are the only female members of the whole North American deer tribe equipped with antlers.

’The rut is a time of fantastic sights and sounds. The great angry bucks engage in constant battle, whether or not a prize awaits the victor. These battles go on incessantly through daylight and through darkness and at times the crash of horn on horn is so continuous and loud that sleep becomes impossible for a man camped near the rutting herds.

Yet the battles are mostly sound and fury. The tremendous sweeps of antlers that dwarf their bearers are of little use as dueling weapons, and usually the only damage to the contestants is to the loser’s pride. There is of course the constant and macabre danger of the two sets of antlers locking, and it is not rare to find the skeletons of such combatants with the antlers still locked in death.

For a few weeks the winning bucks take over, and defend the herds of does. But when the urgent drive of their loins is quite exhausted, the older bucks leave the harems and go back to their own segregated lives.

Until the first fall of winter snow the northward drift continues. But on a certain day, winter gives its brief warning before it roars down out of the darkening arctic and the coming of the first snow fills the deer with panic.

A frenzy seizes them and they turn as one animal, coalesce into immense frantic herds, and pound toward the south again. Herds run into herds until the concentration is so complete that all the animals throughout the land may be together in one single mighty wave which plunges wildly down upon the shelter of the southern forests.

In the fall of 1947, I met that panic-stricken wave of fleeing deer. One day the country stretched endlessly northward and was empty of all motion, save where a raven soared in lazy circles against, a faded sky. But with the following dawn the land came alive. From a high hill beside the river I could see nothing but the backs of deer. The river seethed with the multitudes swimming its rapid width, and the clicking of the countless feet was more persistent than the cries of crickets on a warm summer evening in the South. But three days later that same land was dead again. A single wolf, following leisurely over the corroded muskeg, was all that moved upon the plains.


I ONCE met an old white man who had trapped for many years by the lakes in the wooded country of northern Manitoba where many of the great herds winter. On a December day he took me to look at the narrow neck connecting his lake with an adjoining one. The ice was clear and free of snow and as I looked downward I could see that the floor of the narrows consisted of a chaotic tangle of bones that seemed to reach within inches of the surface. The antlers alone, in that vast boneyard, could have been counted in the tens of thousands, and the deer that had contributed their bones to the charnel collection must have totaled many times that number.

After I had seen the narrows the old man told me the story of the days when he first built his cabin near the lake. In those days the deer, arriving from the North, were funneled by two parallel lines of hills into the narrow channel where the boneyard lies. He told me that the press of deer was sometimes so great that fawns were swept off their feet and crushed by the animals around them. He told me that this solid river of deer flowed for as much as two weeks without a slackening of the pressure. Perhaps he exaggerated, for an old man’s memory is often greener than the event. And yet there were the bones under the ice.

I asked about the channel cemetery, and he went on to tell me how it came about. He spoke of how the Idthen Eldeli Indians — Eaters of Deer, their name means—came every fall to the narrows between the lakes, and each man brought with him at least a case of ammunition for his .30-30 rifle. The Indians remained until the ammunition failed or until the deer were past. Those that did pass. By the time the Indians were gone, the new icc of the narrows and the lakes was creaking with the weight of the dead deer that pressed it down.

In the spring the ice dropped its weight of bodies into the deep water, and most of those deer were untouched by man except for the bullet holes which scarred their carcasses and except that all had their tongues removed for a reason that I speak of later. In the course of two decades the deep channel became so clogged with bones that a canoe could not safely be paddled through it.

Now, in the fall, only a trickle of the great rivers of the deer flows past that place. The deer have not changed their routes — they have simply gone. Where once they moved by many mighty roads, today they pass along one route. And the rifles that destroyed the deer also destroyed the Indians who held the rifles, as surely as if men had turned the muzzles on themselves. For not even those immensc herds could withstand the slaughter they were subjected to, and as the deer’s ranks thinned, so were the ranks of the Idthen Eldeli thinned by the meat starvation which was the aftermath of the great slaughter.

Still, no one should blame the Idthen people. Theirs was always a hard and dangerous life. Always the deer were their sole bulwark against starvation and oblivion. Through the long winters, the deer alone made existence in the thin forests possible for these Indians, even as the deer alone made life possible for the Eskimos in the Barrens. Both races were, in fact, Peoples of the Deer, and before the coming of white men, both races lived in harmony with the animals who gave them life.

But when the trading posts began to spread into the northern forests the rifle rapidly replaced the old weapons of the people. And a race of men who had devoted all the cent uries of their history to the killing of fleer with weapons that were efficient only when used with great skill, and when used unrelentingly, were now presented with a weapon that could destroy without restrictions and without the need of skill.

The trading firms grew wealthy and still grow wealthier. As recently as the 1320s, one outpost of a world-famous trading concern actually encouraged t he sale of t remendous quant it ies of ammunition to the Northern Indians by offering to buy all the deer tongues that were brought in! Many thousands of dried deer tongues passed through that post, while many thousands of carcasses, stripped only of their tongues, remained to rot in the spring thaws.

The Idthen Eldeli went out to their winter hunting grounds, every hunter carrying a case of shells (a thousand rounds), and often enough they were back at the post before spring for more. The profits mounted pleasantly—so pleasantly that a recent suggestion that ihe sale of ammunition be limited for the good of the purchasers and of the game was denounced as interference with the liberty of men. It was interference, I suppose —interference with the free rights of men to destroy themselves through ignorance.

The slaughter of the deer and the destruction of the Deer People is going on, and all that has been done to halt the twin massacres is this: agents of the government have been sent out to tell the survivors of the Idthen Eldeli that they must learn the arts of “conservation.” The Idthen People listen to this strange, foreign talk, but in the privacy of their own tents they recall how the white trappers who have encroached upon their lands kill the migrating deer without compunction and without restraint.

The Idthen People who have been tricked and bribed into abandoning the gift of the deer are passing quickly from the high forests. Each year the energy of men grows less and the hunters catch less fur. Each year more women cough their life’s blood onto the filthy dirt floors of the wooden hogpens which their ancestors would have scorned. In the winter tents, with the subzero cold passing at will through the shoddy cloth of trade clothes instead of being kept out by warm caribou skins, the women mix flour and baking powder to feed the children who may live till spring. In the summer the men lift the nets they have been taught to use and the people eat fish each day, but the fish do not give them the fat they need, and when fall comes they are impotent beings against the night of winter. They cannot acquire our immunities, for they have no strength to repulse the onslaughts of disease.

The Idthen People, who are but one of the many tribes in similar condition across the Territories, are dying of starvation. The deer must feed the People, and the deer alone can give the People life. If, and when, the time comes that there are no more deer, then the last man will die in his igloo and the problems that the Barrens People pose to us as their guardians will not he problems any longer.

(To be concluded)